Ramallah, Occupied West Bank - Ismat Mansour was only 16 years old when he was arrested and sentenced to 22 years in prison for complicity in killing an Israeli settler.
At the time, the first intifada - the Palestinian uprising against Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip - was in its final throes. Today, 37-year-old Mansour is a writer, journalist and Hebrew-language instructor making use of the skills he acquired during his 20 years behind bars.
Mansour was released in August 2013 as part of a US-brokered political process to secure a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel pledged to free 104 long-time Palestinian detainees in four stages. In exchange, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) promised not to seek membership in UN organisations or sign international treaties until the end of April.
All of the 104 Palestinians set to be released had been incarcerated in Israeli prisons since before the Oslo Accords were signed between Israel and the PLO in 1994. According to the 1999 Sharm El Sheikh Memorandum, all of them were supposed to be freed by October of that year. But that never happened.
The PLO is the highest representative body for Palestinians worldwide. The Palestinian Authority (PA) was created for a provisional period to manage the territories Israel withdrew from in accordance with the Oslo Accords. The PA continues to administer the day-to-day Palestinian affairs in the occupied West Bank because no final peace agreement has been reached.
Mansour, like many of his released compatriots, had already served out the majority of his sentence when he was set free, making his way home to the West Bank village of Deir Jarir, close to Ramallah.
While he was ecstatic to reunite with his family, Mansour said the final batch of 26 detainees is being used as political pawns by Israel. "The prisoner issue has become subject to blackmail," he said. Israel has refused to release the fourth and final group of prisoners unless the peace talks were extended past the original deadline of April 29.
"Many predicted that the fourth phase [of the prisoner release] wouldn't be carried out," said Mansour. "That's what happens when the release is piecemeal and not carried out in one go."
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In response to Israel's refusal to release the last of the four groups as scheduled, the PLO signed 15 international conventions and treaties pertaining to human rights, corruption, and diplomacy, among other issues - actions forbidden under the terms of the peace talks.
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blamed the breakdown of the talks on the Palestinians, saying at a weekly cabinet meeting on April 6 that their request to join 15 international treaties "substantially violated the understandings that were reached with American involvement".
But this only took place after Israel made the prisoner release "contingent on how the negotiations are going", said Randa Wahbe, an advocacy officer at Addameer, a Palestinian prisoners' support organisation. "So the prisoners were used as a bargaining chip. That's why Israel is now putting pressure on [the Palestinians] using the last 26 prisoners."
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has argued it was the Palestinians who were engaged in "real clear blackmail" - and that he'd rather see his government collapse due to disagreements over the prisoner release than succumb to "releas[ing] terrorists".
So far, 74 detainees have been released since August 2013, and almost half of those in the remaining batch are Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. "The [Israeli authorities] left the ones that would be released into Israel proper until the very end," Wahbe pointed out. "The first batch were detainees hailing mostly from Gaza, so they would be released into an open-air prison where they are more easily controlled."
In past prisoner exchanges, many detainees from the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, were deported to Gaza. In 2011, Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was released in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners. At least 200 of these prisoners - almost all hailing from the West Bank - were sent to Gaza, according to Addameer.
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The phased prisoner release process has stirred controversy among Palestinians because Israeli authorities have tied it to the negotiations' progress. The PLO, which is responsible for signing agreements with Israel, has often rejected that premise, saying they only agreed not to engage in international diplomacy until the end of the nine-month talks.
But the PLO's reassurances have not done much to appease its Palestinian critics, who believe that securing the release of detainees has not been prioritised by the leadership. In a statement made through his wife, Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, who has so far served 12 years in an Israeli prison, accused the Palestinian leadership of neglecting the prisoner issue.
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"Never has a national liberation movement neglected and ignored the issue of the release of prisoners such as the one in the Palestinian case," wrote Barghouti in a communiqué from his cell at Hadarim Prison. The letter was read at the third annual meeting of the Palestinian Centre for Policy Research last week. "The PLO signed the Oslo (I) Accord without pre-conditioning it on the release of a single prisoner, and without including any reference, albeit a minute one, to prisoners."
But senior Palestinian official Mohammad Shtayyeh said Barghouti and all other prisoners were a priority for the Palestinian leadership, and blamed Israel for wanting to extract concessions in exchange for the prisoners.
"Israel has refused to release the last tranche [of prisoners] because they wanted a trade-off," he said. "Sometimes it's 'prisoners for settlements'; now it's 'prisoners for talks', and recently it's been 'prisoners for [incarcerated US spy Jonathan] Pollard'. They want to use the last group [of prisoners] for blackmail."
The Israeli prime minister's office declined to comment, directing Al Jazeera to Netanyahu's April 6 speech before his cabinet.
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In total, some 5,000 Palestinians are in Israeli prisons today, including 17 women and 154 children. Since 1967, an estimated 800,000 Palestinians have been detained by Israel. This is equivalent to 20 percent of the entire population of the West Bank and Gaza Strip today, making the prisoner issue a sore spot in Palestinians' daily lives.
This has not only prompted palpable anger at Israeli authorities, but has also generated an internal debate among Palestinian human rights lawyers on how best to deal with the military court system that tries Palestinians.
"One of the steps that needs to be taken is to boycott Israeli military courts," suggested Sahar Francis, the director of Addameer. Naser al-Rayes, a consultant with Palestinian legal rights group Al Haq, suggested that the PA cease paying all expenses and fines levied on Palestinians by Israeli prison authorities. "All we are doing is allowing Israel to evade its responsibility under international law."
Rayes also argued that the practice of linking negotiations with the prisoner issue must be ended. "We need to turn to the international community," he said. "Yes, we have signed international treaties and protocols, but we need to make use of these. Otherwise, what's the point?"
But Shtayyeh explained the PLO's decision to join international treaties represented a "paradigm shift" in which Palestinians would pursue other means in parallel with talks. "We cannot be victims to one option," he said. "We will take our UN move in phases, [such that the] bilateral talks are not the only answer for ending the occupation."
Follow Dalia Hatuqa on Twitter: @daliahatuqa
Source: Al Jazeera